Last week Ariel wrote about some of the challenges that come with sex after having a baby. This week I want to share some thoughts about my experience at the recent Sex Down South conference held in Atlanta. Sex Down South (SDS) is a three-day sex and sexuality conference that is “committed to highlighting and centering the voices of women of color, trans* and gender non-conforming folks, sex workers, queer people, and differently-abled individuals.” One of the things that makes SDS unique is the conference’s guiding principles, which are so awesome I’m going to list them all for you:
1. The voices, feelings, and experiences of people of color should be prioritized.
2. I will not assume anyone’s gender identity based on their appearance.
3. Sexuality is beautiful and so very diverse—there is no shame in our sexualities, and I will not yuck anyone’s yum!
4. Consent and boundaries must be respected at all times.
5. Centering the experiences of survivors is critical to this work.
6. All relationships deserve the same respect, regardless of orientation or configuration.
7. People with disabilities and mental illness have a right to sexuality and sexy spaces.
8. All bodies, no matter their shape or size, have a right to pleasure.
9. Everyone has the right to confidentiality.
10. Violence – including physical, verbal, and emotional abuse – will not be tolerated.
Every conference attendee was given a copy of these principles at registration and was expected to abide by them. Rather than just offering lip-service to these principles, the conference organizers demonstrated them through the choice of topics, presenters, and keynote speakers. Many of the sessions included a focus on sexual trauma, and throughout the conference presenters and participants identified themselves as people of color, trans, queer, disabled, kinky, poly, and as survivors of sexual violence.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was the onsite healing space, staffed by local herbalists, massage therapists, yoga instructors, energy workers, and licensed counselors. A hotel meeting room across the hall from the other nondescript hotel meeting rooms in the conference space was transformed into a dimly lit healing den complete with a massage table; yoga mats; tinctures of homeopathic remedies for anxiety, headaches, and muscle aches; a tent filled with pillows and blankets; musical instruments; and a cozy corner hidden behind a couch offering children’s books and space for reading, cuddling, crying, or quiet contemplation. Soft music filled the room, anchored by an altar with a framed picture of Audre Lorde tucked in among the elements. Colorful tapestries were draped over the hotel sconces and candles were lit. The message sent by this room was clear to me: You are important. Your healing is important. How well you’re doing physically, emotionally, and spiritually informs your ability to participate in this community. You don’t have to be “on” all the time. Time for rest and connection and receiving nurturance from others is offered here as an integral part of the journey and the experience. Healing is not a distraction. Healing is not something we have to go somewhere else to do so that we can come back and join the anti-oppression work. Healing is the work.
The other message this healing room sent was that space for pause, reflection and healing is critical to creating a culture of consent. How can we enthusiastically consent to anything when we’re disconnected from our bodies, ourselves, and each other? How can we be sure that we’re respecting someone’s boundaries when we haven’t taken the time to look them in the eyes, to be quiet and listen to their desires, and to pause and notice the rhythm of their breath? How do we discern and respect the desires and boundaries of our bodies and our partners’ bodies when we’re rushed, disconnected, checked out, or living in our heads? More importantly, how can we create space for these pauses of connection, listening, witnessing, healing, respect and discernment within our lives, our work, and our movements?
One of my favorite sessions at the conference was called “Healing Sexual Trauma through Tantra,” led by Maisha Najuma Aza. It would be impossible to convey the vulnerability, connection, and open-heartedness that was created in the session, but I’ll offer an exercise to try with a partner that you trust. Sit or stand facing one another and look into each other’s eyes. With the understanding that none of the things spoken are going to be done (at least not right now), ask your partner if you can do something you desire to do with/to them. (Can I hold your hand? Can I rub your feet? Can I kiss you?) Notice how your partner’s body responds. Does their posture change? Does their skin flush or go pale? How is their breathing affected by the question? What do you see in their eyes? When you are the receiver of the questions, pause to notice how your body responds before you answer. Does your body say “yes”? (or hell, yes!/no, thank you/maybe, but first I want you to do this...) How do you know? What sensations in your body signal to you that this is an action you desire or not? If you’re not able to feel sensation in your body, is there something about the question or the suggested action that feels overwhelming or unwelcome? When you’re clear on how your body has reacted to this request, state your answer aloud, without qualification, judgment, or explanation. If that’s challenging, notice what sensations arise when you attempt to state your boundary aloud. When you hear your partner’s answer, no matter what it is, say, “thank you.” Thank you for having the courage to speak your truth. Thank you for respecting your own boundaries. Thank you for trusting me to listen.
I think what’s striking to me about my experience at SDS is how dumbfounded I am that it was so unique. How is it possible that I’ve made it to almost 40, having spent many of the last 20 of those years in queer spaces, and I’ve never encountered an environment so grounded in a culture of consent, sex-positivity, and celebration of marginalized identities? The presence of these attitudes makes their absence much more stark in my day-to-day life as I deepen my understanding of how so many of the spaces I inhabit are infected by white supremacy, transphobia and transmisogyny, ableism, sexual shame, and violence. My experience at Sex Down South has breathed new life into my commitment to prioritizing the healing of those most affected by these interlocking systems of oppression in the service of our collective liberation. As I think about my current and future work, I’ve been asking myself, How can I create space in my own life to prioritize healing, connection, and consent? What does it look like to hold members of my family, friendship circles, social networks, and community accountable to these principles? What would our world look like if it was the norm to create living, working, and healing spaces based on these guiding principles? What would it feel like to live every day in that world? What might we be capable of?
As I mull this over, I’m reminded of the final line of June Jordan’s 1978 Poem for South African Women: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Queer, trans, women, people of color, survivors of violence - we are the ones who will create these liberatory healing spaces. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Heather Branham, LCSW, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, and family building.